Literature News

Writing and the City (Week 2): A Tale from a Masjid Jamek Hotel and a Letter from KL

This is part of a series of jottings from UnRepresented: KL, a homegrown writing program focused on unearthing less-heard and less “represented” narratives in the city.

If Week 1 of UnRepresented: KL was about connection to one’s hometown and the memories it plays host to, Week 2 had the UnR4 cohort exploring the Masjid Jamek area to carry out site-specific writing and craft stories set in that part of the city.

The following is by Shahriman Latif and Chan Su Ling, who chose as their site a boutique hotel on Leboh Ampang:

He’s shouting at the demons in his head again, ghosts of those who had wronged him in the past. A couple of Scandinavian backpackers keep their distance, for there are people like him in any city anywhere in the world, the ones who have fallen through the cracks of what they should be. Once you fall through the cracks, there’s no turning back. You’ll be a broken shell of the person you once were, and you’ll lose everything. People won’t look you in the eye and avoid you, fearing your failure to be contagious.

Today he’s screaming about that time when his wife left him, that night a few months following his fall from grace when they found the electricity to their home had been cut off. That was the last straw for her and they had an argument and hurtful, soul-crushing words were spoken and she took the children and went back to her parents. He’s questioning her loyalty in the unforgiving afternoon sun now, and somewhere in the fragments of his broken reality the ghost of her walks out on him again.

The lonesome Belgian man walks out of the Hotel 1915 and passes the argument in mid-stream. They lock gazes for the briefest of moments and glimpse into each other’s realities, one looking for a purpose not yet realized, another mourning over a simple life once lived.

Samir had a bit of a culture shock when he first set foot here. They told him about Kuala Lumpur being a busy city but they never accounted for its chaotic pace. He was used to the laid back life he led in Brussels. He knew that he would get used to the craziness of the hustle of a city that never sleeps, but it drained him, made him feel tired. That thought occurred to him in that brief moment, as their eyes met. That crazy man. KL was a mad, mad city. Was this raving lunatic the future if he stayed here for much longer?

“What are you looking at?” the lunatic asked. It made Samir uncomfortable and he tried ignoring him as he walked on, but the man followed him.

“Why you ignore me?” he screamed. Samir thought he could lose him at the traffic lights, but compliance to traffic laws is the least of concerns in a lunatic’s mind.

“You think you so good? I know people like you just come here and take everything! You foreign devils. How you think I lost my job? I was flying high until one of you thought they were too many of us!”  Samir turned to face the man, eyes widened.

The screaming man may be a different person but the story was the same. Samir had a job to do and he wasn’t going to let sentimentality hold him back. The company he was consulting for was bleeding dry thanks to redundancies; cutting a hundred over people would at least allow it to break even and not bleed red into another year. Some of the staff somehow took it badly and protested overnight, and he became the ‘bad guy’ instead of the saviour he rightfully was.

“I had to do it! Pressures were on me to deliver targets!” he said in the middle of the street.

“Did you think of the lives you were playing with? I’m forty two! Who’s going to hire me now?”

The lunatic threw a punch. Samir, surprised, lost his balance and fell to the ground. Eyes feral, the man clawed his way up, tearing at Samir’s shirt, trying to draw blood. He straddled Samir, raining punches onto his face. Samir snapped back into reality and tried to buckle him off, but in that moment, despite the fact that Samir may be stronger, lunacy and rage surged through and the man overwhelmed Samir and choked him.

Samir clawed at his throat trying to pry off the fingers enclosed around his neck. He started to see black and red spots cloud his vision, floating at the edges of his consciousness. He could feel the spittle drip on his face and he tried to hold on. The last thing he heard was the chanting of “Devil! Devil! Devil!” before giving into the darkness.

The session included the sharing of writing assignments from the previous week. As the writers will have many instances of making KL the subject of their work in the course of UnR, the assignment was to not write about KL, but to write as the city and take on its voice.

Here is a letter from KL, by Hui Lin:

So this is goodbye, then.

We’ve had a good run, haven’t we? Sometimes I look back upon the years and wish we could have been happier. I wonder if we got to know each other as well as we should have.

I know I’m not easy to love. I’m indifferent and bad-tempered, especially when I’m busy. And I’m always busy aren’t I? Hustling, bustling, milling in and out…always in a hectic frenzy. I don’t mean to be rude though, it’s just that I find the people in my surroundings so ungovernable, I sometimes boil over from the pressure.

You’ve occasionally accused me of being soulless; too vain, too achievement-hungry and materialistic. I paint and repaint myself in garish colours hoping to prove to the world I am cultured or have some sort of history to be proud of. I adorn myself in one glass ornament after another, each one a shinier and bigger bauble than the last, screaming “See me! Recognise me!”

Here’s my confession. Sometimes I think I am running away from who I really am. I often feel that if I look in the mirror too long, it might break. If I bare my memories, my scars, my struggles for the world to see, I’d shatter the precious illusion that I’ve gotten over my past and made peace between my warring selves. So yes, I’m hiding. I’m messy and complex.

What hurts me, though, is that you’ve never tried to understand that. You think I’m just…shallow. Have you even looked deeper, listened harder, tried to read what I’m really saying? I am not faultless but you, you – pardon my saying so – are equally to blame. You return from your great sojourn with your high-and-mighty ideals, demanding for me to meet them without sparing a thought for whether I actually can. And then when I fail, you vilify and shun me. Is that fair? You’re just like the rest of the lot, you know – constantly trying to fashion me into something I’m not just to suit your own purposes.

I’m trying. And if you did too, you would see that I’m a work-in-progress. I’m young and stupid. If you knew my history – how I grew up as a child and the kind of manipulations I’ve been subject to by the ones who were meant to nurture me, you would sympathise.

I’m still finding myself. And I’m not ashamed to say I need all the help I can get. I know it’s selfish of me to ask…but I wish you’d stay.

K. L.

Hui Lin chose to write the letter to the theme of “dejected/abandonment issues.” We’d like to ask, “Who is H?” and “Who would KL feel abandoned by?”

That’s up to each reader to contemplate, although it’s likely that many would see glimpses of themselves or people they know.

Cry, the beloved city?

Adriana N. Manan co-organises UnRepresented: KL. For more information on the writing program, check out Facebook!

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